Paula Kelly, an accomplished Broadway dancer who acted in films and on TV, died Saturday, February 8, in Whittier, California, according to her partner of 17 years George Parkington and a report at BroadwayWorld. She was 77.
Her nephew confirmed the cause of her death was chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, as THR reported Monday, February 10.
On Sunday, filmmaker Lee Daniels eulogized his idol and friend on Instagram, writing, "I love you Paula .. my hero ... my mentor .. sleep well .. you are the most profound and gifted actor I’ve ever known ..🙏🏽🙏🏽RIP #paulakelly."
Born October 21, 1943, in Jacksonville, Florida, Kelly's family moved to Harlem in NYC, where she grew up. She was a star pupil at the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art (later known as the "Fame" school), and studied music at Juilliard.
A statuesque stunner, her early career was in modern dance, with such companies as Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey.
A stage actress first, she excelled in "Something More!" (1964) and "Sophisticated Ladies" (1981), among other Broadway successes, and in the lauded West Coast production of "Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope" (1971).
She broke into TV as the choreographer of many variety specials as well as a performer, singing a duet with show-biz legend Gene Kelly on his 1966 special "Gene Kelly in New York, New York" and appearing in Quincy Jones's star-studded 1973 special "Duke Ellington... We Love You Madly."
In 1968, Kelly performed a show-stopping dance set to the song "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" on the Oscars.
The following year, Kelly showed off her dancer's body on the pages of Playboy in an artful shoot by Lawrence Schiller, the layout having the distinction of being the first to show pubic hair in the magazine's history.
Having played the role onstage, Kelly was a stand-out as Helene in the 1969 film adaptation of "Sweet Charity," one of her most lasting impressions in the medium. She also appeared in "The Andromeda Strain" (1971), "Soylent Green" (1973), "Uptown Saturday Night" (1974), and "Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling" (1986).
Kelly was a series regular for a season of "Night Court" (1984), earning an Emmy nomination, and made many episodic TV appearances, perhaps most memorably as housekeeper Marguerite on a 1987 episode of "The Golden Girls."
Another of Kelly's most searing TV performances was on "The Women of Brewster Place" (1989), which earned her a second Emmy nomination. Among her many other honors, Kelly received three NAACP Image Awards.
By 1999, she had mostly retired from acting, but in 2009 worked in the Ebony Repertory Theatre's production of "Crowns" by Regina Taylor at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center and the Pasadena Playhouse.
Kelly was married to director Donald Chaffey from 1985 until his death in 1990. She is survived by her partner, her aunt, one niece, and one nephew.